by Marc Hequet
The U.S. Air Force has been on combat-ready status continuously since 1990—longer than any other period for the service, established in 1947.
So Howard Stendahl, '77, has his work cut out for him.
First, the Gulf War in 1990-91. Next, patrolling the no-fly zones over Iraq to prevent Iraqi aggression to the north or south. Then, conflict in the Balkans. Then, the Afghan and Iraqi wars.
Such continuous duty takes its toll on machines, fliers and ground crews—a toll both physical and spiritual.
Major General Stendahl is chief of chaplains for the Air Force. Based at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., he directs 2,000 chaplains around the world who minister to Air Force personnel. He's served in the Mideast himself.
Chaplains hear the worries, fears and deepest secrets of people who are under a lot of stress—away from families, or moving families along with them every few months. They're constantly on duty, often facing the dangers of combat.
People come to chaplains with trust and openness. Whatever the rank, these ministers are always addressed as "chaplain," Stendahl says. He calls it "an address of affection or respect."
Chaplains are different from other officers. They don't hold command authority. "I can't order troops," he explains. Rather, he adds, "based on the Geneva Convention, we have status as noncombatants."
Moreover, chaplains have the privilege of complete privacy with those in their ministry. Neither military nor civilian court can ask a chaplain to testify against an accused person. "That privilege belongs to the penitent," Stendahl says. If someone discloses a crime or violation of the military code of justice to a chaplain, the chaplain cannot be required to report it. It stays with the chaplain.
Stendahl has long wanted to be a chaplain. The son of a Navy veteran of World War II, he grew up in St. Paul, Minn., near Luther Seminary, attending Murray High School and Hamline University before enrolling at the seminary. After graduating, he served eight years as a parish pastor, mostly in Wisconsin.
Civilian pastoring is good preparation for chaplaincy, Stendahl says. Serving a civilian congregation allows chaplains-to-be a "more extended formation before active duty" and a "stronger rooting in confessional tradition," he says.
Now 62, Stendahl has served as chief Air Force chaplain since 2010.
The needs of his big congregation—680,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve and civilian forces—are like the needs of a civilian parish. Except his members often face death. Nearly a quarter century of continuous combat readiness is "a strain not only on the iron but on the human beings," he says.
Air Force members move every 12 to 18 months, which is hard on families. Service members approach him with issues of "family and life and service," he says. "They bring those to chaplains because of the level of trust."
Chaplains also deal with still more urgent issues of suicide and sexual violence.
They can't talk about specific individuals with superior officers, but top people do ask chaplains to gauge morale, especially in combat and other stressful situations.
The Rev. Brian L. Erickson is senior pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Arlington, Va., where Stendahl is a member. They graduated from Luther Seminary the same year, and Stendahl preached at Erickson's ordination in Erickson's hometown of Maddock, N.D.
Erickson was a young pastor at Trinity Lutheran in Hemet, Calif., in 1982, when his wife died. Not long afterward, Erickson drove to Wisconsin to visit Stendahl. Stendahl drove back with him. "I told him I did not want to drive back to California alone," Erickson says. "That is the kind of friend he is and always will be."
He calls Stendahl "humble and down-to-earth. I remember visiting him in San Antonio when he was a chaplain at one of the bases there, and going to a worship service he led. I was amazed at how positively he related to everyone, including the new recruits."
Erickson says, "I am quite sure he has risen to the rank of a major general not only because of his charisma and leadership skills, but because of the strong relationships he has fostered with persons of all ranks within the Air Force."